Almost 6 months to the day after the second season’s finale, Columbo burst back onto screens on 23 September 1973 in the svelte shape of Lovely But Lethal.
Boasting a brilliant cast and a unique beauty industry backdrop, hopes were high that Season 3’s opener would match the curtain-raising efforts from the first two stellar seasons. So let’s dust off our fashion turbans and sharpen our eyebrow pencils in readiness to see if Lovely but Lethal lives up to the hype…
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Viveca Scott: Vera Miles
Karl Lessing: Martin Sheen
David Lang: Vincent Price
Shirley Blane: Sian Barbara Allen
Dr Murcheson: Fred Draper
Sergeant: John Finnegan
Lab technician: Bruce Kirby
Written by: Jackson Gillis
Directed by: Jeannot Swarc
Score by: Dick De Benedictis
Episode synopsis: Columbo Lovely but Lethal
Beauty industry Empress Viveca Scott (Vera Miles) has fallen on comparatively troubled times. Sales are down, she’s lost some high-profile outlets, and the vultures – namely arch-rival David Lang (Vincent Price) – are circling. She needs a miracle, and she seems to have found one in the shape of a ground-breaking skin cream that makes wrinkles disappear!
There’s a fly in the ointment, though. The formula has been stolen by handsome young chemist Karl Lessing (Martin Sheen looking very young and handsome), who has diddled Viveca and and co out of the correct formula and is willing to sell it to the highest bidder – who just happens to be David Lang.
“Viveca needs a miracle, and she seems to have found one in the shape of a ground-breaking skin cream that makes wrinkles disappear!”
Tipped off about this betrayal by chain-smoking weirdo Shirley (Viveca’s mole within Lang’s business), a desperate Viveca heads off to Lessing’s batchelor pad in a bid to get her beautifully manicured mitts on the formula and the single pot of the miracle cream that he has in his possession.
Lessing, however, isn’t going to give in easily. The two are former lovers, you see, and he appears to have designs on both her body and her money – both of which Viveca is willing to part with. She jots down some figures that she’s willing to pay on the back cover of a TV guide in eyebrow pencil. As they appear to reach agreement, Lessing laughs in her face. He has no intention of giving her the formula. He just wanted to see her beg.
Enraged, Vivica does what any woman would do in that situation: she clobbers his swede with a handy microscope, pockets the jar of ointment and gets the hell out of Dodge! A slight cut from the microscope slide’s broken glass is her only injury. She doesn’t have the formula, but through careful analysis of the wonder cream she may yet crack its secrets.
Lessing’s body is discovered early the next day and Columbo and his gang are called in to investigate. Amongst other things, Columbo finds broken glass on the carpet which he puts his hand in by mistake; the impression of an octagonal-bottomed jar in a flour container; a magazine with financial doodles on it written in black eyebrow pencil; and a dartboard with a picture of Viveca Scott pinned to it.
He also discovers that Lessing had been due to go on a European vacation that day, travelling first class all the way. The cost of tickets was $3000. Yet Lessing had only $300 in the bank. Something’s not adding up…
His investigations lead him, naturally enough, to Beauty Mark Inc., Viveca’s place of work. Columbo discusses the murder with her, even suggesting that he thinks a woman may have done it because of the eyebrow pencil writing on the magazine.
Viveca seems to be in the clear straight away. As a redhead, she would never use a black eyebrow pencil, after all. It’s only when Columbo notices that she isn’t sporting the famous beauty mark in real life that she has in all her press photography that the truth comes out. She does need a black eyebrow pencil for that.
Next stop is Lang Enterprises, where Columbo tries in vain to get some information from David Lang about his relationship with Lessing. It may be obvious that Lang’s not telling the whole truth, but when he’s backed up by his secretary Shirley, Columbo beats a retreat.
Shirley lets the cat out of the bag about the real state of affairs between Lang and Lessing to Viveca at a secret rendezvous. Lang had withdrawn $200,000 from his account the day before the young chemist’s death. The morning after the death, he put it all back in. While that wouldn’t look great to the police, Shirley knows he didn’t do it. She drops a broad hint that she suspects Viveca did, though.
Realising this is problem that must be tackled head-on, Viveca arranges to meet Shirley later that day out near her fat farm retreat. She then shows off her mad chemistry skillz by lacing a cigarette with poison in a move that can only be bad news for the gat-toothed Shirley.
“Viveca shows off her mad chemistry skillz by lacing a cigarette with poison.”
Just as she’s about to head out to kill, errr… meet Shirley, Viveca is interrupted by Columbo, who’s driven out to the retreat to ask a few more questions. He pesters her for a time until she artfully sidesteps him by entering the nude-sunbathing area. The bashful Lieutenant is far too shy to follow.
Now unencumbered by the irksome detective, Viveca meets Shirley, nods her head obligingly to the young woman’s delusional dreams of becoming an executive at Beauty Mark and slips her the poisoned cigarette. After a creepy cuddle, Shirley drives off to meet her doom, crashing her car while in a drug-addled haze. The message is clear, kids: smoking is seriously bad for your health.
Columbo’s still around when Viveca returns, unsettling her with a story about how he seems to have contracted poison ivy – even though it doesn’t grow in southern California. It itches like blazes he adds, just as the gloved Viveca is persistently scratching her own hand.
The topic comes up again the next day, as Columbo visits Viveca HQ once more. The riddle of the poison ivy has been solved. It came from Karl Lessing’s home, where he had been using an extract of it in some chemical tests, although at this stage the detective is still unsure how it ended up on his hand.
Viveca, meanwhile, is driven to desperation. Was Lessing bluffing about the contents of the jar he gave her? Maybe it was a compound made using the poison ivy extract and not a miracle wrinkle cure at all! Seeking answers, she heads back to the fat farm to find Dr Murcheson – the alcoholic old chemist who was Lessing’s direct superior. He agrees to analyse the ointment.
However, Viveca’s time runs out. As she dashes to her office to fetch the jar, she hears a commotion in the courtyard. Looking out of her window she sees two police black-and-whites pulling in and faces a critical decision: fling the jar and its possibly priceless contents out into the ocean, or stash it and hope for the best. She chooses the former, and agonisingly tosses the jar into the churning waters below.
Moments later Columbo and his cronies arrive to conduct a search of the office. When nothing shows up, Columbo dismisses the other officers and has a one-on-one with Viveca. He pointedly asks her how her itch is doing and arrests her for murder.
You see, he’s finally figured out how he ended up with poison ivy. When Lessing was brained with the microscope, the glass slide on it was shattered and ground into the carpet. Analysis shows it had extract of poison ivy on it. Columbo contracted it when he touched the carpet and when doctors prove Viveca also has it, Columbo will have the final evidence he needs.
Outwitted and outmanoeuvred, Viveca admits defeat and is escorted out of her office to face justice. She has just enough time to deliver a chilly parting shot to Columbo as credits roll…
Lovely‘s best moment: cat fight at the cat walk
The episode’s delicious encounter early on between catty rivals David Lang and Viveca Scott at the fashion show is terrific entertainment. It’s exposition heavy, but in a very good way as the audience is succinctly and plausibly introduced to the troubles facing Viveca’s company through Lang’s snide comments at her expense.
Viveca gives as good as she gets, as you’d expect, and the foundations are laid for a mouth-watering battle between the two which, sadly, never entirely eventuates. Still, combined with the outrageous and opulent fashions of the early 1970s – including Viveca’s unbelievable fashion turban – and you have an eye-opening scene that holds the promise of untold delights to come.
My take on Lovely but Lethal
Seasons 1 and 2 of Columbo pulled out all the stops to dazzle viewers with season openers of great style and ambition.
Murder by the Book remains one of the the greatest season curtain raisers in televisual history. Etude in Black, meanwhile, was unprecedented in its size and scope, with extensive location shooting and a sweeping orchestral soundtrack making it a great example of ‘Event TV’.
Strange, then, that Lovely but Lethal was chosen to kick off Columbo Season 3, because this is a comparatively lacklustre outing with even a stellar cast struggling to keep the episode’s head above water.
There may have been external factors at play. A four-month writers’ strike in 1973 must have played merry hell with scheduling and pre-production. However, fans’ favourite episode Any Old Port in a Storm aired only two weeks later, so was surely in the can when Lovely aired. It’s a superior episode in every regard, so why it wasn’t chosen to open Season 3 is a mystery.
“Lovely but Lethal is a comparatively lacklustre outing with even a stellar cast struggling to keep the episode’s head above water.”
I’ve watched Lovely but Lethal many times, but it’s never moved me to any great extent. I’ve always thought that what it gives with one hand it seems to take with the other. The ‘best moment’ chronicled above is a case in point, promising much more than it delivers, but Vincent Price’s appearance overall is the prime example. On the upside, it’s so cool that Vincent Price starred in an episode of Columbo! On the downside, he’s criminally underused and just disappears halfway through the story.
It doesn’t make sense to me to have Price at your disposal and then not make more of him. Who knows, perhaps he only had a couple of days spare to accept a small guest slot and we should count our blessings he appeared at all. But the story itself seems to suggest more should have been made of the Lang character.
Consider: he’s a shady character who is out to bring Viveca Scott’s beauty empire to its knees. There’s no love lost between the two, and we also know that Lang was lying to Columbo about not knowing Lessing, and that he had shifted $200,000 in and out of his bank account to pay for the secret formula. His personal secretary also died in mysterious circumstances.
That level of scheming, intrigue and antagonism simply demands more screen time for Price. But no! He has a couple of decent scenes before vanishing without trace. The balance of the episode suffers as a result.
“Vera Miles did a fine job of portraying Viveca as a cold and ruthless killer, whose only emotions are saved for her business.”
One could argue, of course, that it was better for Vera Miles to not have to share as much of the limelight as she otherwise might. After all, there are relatively few female killers throughout Columbo‘s 35-year lifespan and Miles did a fine job of portraying Viveca as a cold and ruthless killer, whose only emotions are saved for her business, not for the people in her life.
The problem I have is that I just don’t find Viveca that interesting. She doesn’t have the shady past of a Nora Chandler, or the bullied upbringing of Beth Chadwick to colour her character. Viveca is a cold fish who uses and abuses those around her. Her motive is financial. It’s hard to get excited about her, except when it comes to her wardrobe, which really is the secret star of the episode.
Viveca should be and is a total fashionista – and not just because of the fashion turban! She’s a costume department’s dream, easily looking a million bucks is every ensemble we see her in. That’s the aspect of her that is most attention grabbing – but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Like my criticism of Short Fuse and Roddy McDowall’s ludicrous fashions in it, when the chief talking points of an episode revolve around the protagonist’s outfits, it’s a sign that the story isn’t as intriguing as it should be.
Usually, a Columbo story penned by Jackson Gillis has gold dust sprinkled throughout. Even the silly Short Fuse, which Gillis also wrote, is partly salvaged by a tremendous gotcha scene. But Gillis’s Midas touch has run out here because the central clue of the poison ivy is decidedly weak.
Columbo has plenty of hunches and some circumstantial evidence against Viveca, but his case entirely hinges on the poison ivy. But I say a fie on it! Viveca has an easy get-out-of-jail-free card available simply by saying that she must have contracted it from Columbo during their first meeting. It would be very hard to disprove.
Also I’m no horticulturalist, but surely a microscope slide could only hold a minuscule amount of poison ivy extract on it? Certainly too little to infect two people to such an obvious extent? Prove me wrong, plant lovers! Prove me wrong…
Columbo actually has more damning evidence against Viveca than he appears to make use of: the doodled numbers on Lessing’s TV magazine. Again I’m guessing, but handwriting analysts must be able to match those numbers with examples of her writing elsewhere to confirm a match. Combine that with the poison ivy and her goose is cooked. Sorry to say it, but they dropped the ball by leaving that out. It’s just not good writing.
All is not quite lost, though. As is the case with every single episode of Columbo, there are some bright moments worth discussing. For one thing, the episode’s ‘Mad Scientist’ opening credits with Dr Murcheson’s tense face filling the screen as he appears to be conducting experiments on helpless women are nicely atmospheric.
With horror legend Vincent Price in the line-up, and Dick De Benedictis’s screeching horror score used throughout, the shades of Universal Monsters’ Dr Frankenstein are unmistakable. Those aren’t the only horror-related aspects, either. Lest we forget, Vera Miles starred in Psycho in 1960, while Sian Barbara Allen’s Shirley character is a bit of a psycho herself. Creepy and weird, the chain-smoking brunette is an unsettling presence until she’s slain.
Keen viewers will recognise that Murcheson is portrayed by Columbo regular Fred Draper, who, as a fun Easter Egg for eagle-eyed fans, stars alongside two other revered Columbo guest stars: Bruce Kirby as the grumpy lab technician and John Finnegan as one of Columbo’s sidekicks. The trio clocked up 27 appearances between them and are much loved by fans. Read more about their contribution to the show here.
But those moments aside, Lovely but Lethal is a lesser light of the Columbo opus. It’s not terrible, but, rather like Viveca’s doomed attempts to secure the miracle cream, the formula just ain’t quite right.
Did you know?
A dozen years before finding silver screen immortality as Mama Fratelli in The Goonies, Anne Ramsey was earning a crust as an extra in Lovely but Lethal! You could easily miss her if not paying attention, but she’s the butch masseuse who’s giving Dr Murcheson a pummelling at the fat farm two-thirds of the way through the episode. She even has a couple of lines. Quite what lead the mild-mannered masseuse to turn so EVIL in little over a decade can only be guessed at…
How I rate ’em
You may have already guessed that Lovely but Lethal won’t be troubling the upper end of the leaderboard. Quite the opposite in fact. I’d place it in the ‘lower mid-tier’ bracket. It has no devastating lows, but no thrilling highs either. It’s really something of a flat liner and certainly one of the most forgettable episodes of the 70s’ run.
Check out any of my other reviews using the links below!
- Suitable for Framing
- Double Shock
- Murder by the Book
- Death Lends a Hand
- A Stitch in Crime
- Lady in Waiting
- Prescription: Murder
- The Most Crucial Game
- Etude in Black
- Greenhouse Jungle
- Requiem for a Falling Star
- Blueprint for Murder
- Ransom for a Dead Man
- Dead Weight
- The Most Dangerous Match
- Lovely But Lethal
- Short Fuse
- Dagger of the Mind
As always, let me know what you make of this episode in the comments section below. I’d LOVE to hear your views. And I’m looking forward to the next episode in the running order immensely, as we reach Any Old Port in a Storm – many a fan’s absolute favourite.
Until then, adieu…